College art history courses tend to tell a very direct trajectory for postwar art: namely that the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe instigated the intellectual and artistic “brain drain” that left a creative vacuum in Europe, enabling America, and New York in particular, to emerge as the cultural hub. Jackson Pollock and his circle dazzled the world with Abstract Expressionism, which soon gave way to American Pop, Minimalism, and so on and so forth.
In contrast to the chauvinism and surrealism favored by postwar American artists, European artists, still surrounded by rubble and ruin, were dealing head on with the existential fallout of the war. For French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), he dispensed with the concept of beauty altogether—beauty seemed frivolous after such atrocities—and created what he called “Art Brut.” Dubuffet’s Art Brut, which translates literally to “raw art,” works highly textured materials like sand, gravel, and plaster into muddy and tar-like surfaces to make what the artist called “matterologies.” These paintings are not psychologically escapist, but rather insist on their own material presence, and, in turn, reify the viewers’ own physical presence and confrontation with reality.
This 1946 portrait of the artist’s friend, writer and critic Jean Paulhan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderfully layered image. The childlike rendition of Paulhan’s features underscores Dubuffet’s commitment to “anti-art,” but there is far more complexity to the figure’s expression: Paulhan’s wide eyes, parted mouth and open-armed gesture gives the subject at once a vulnerable—even pleading—look, as well as one of confusion. The gesture is also reminiscent of Christ or apostolic figures in religious painting.
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Later in his career, Dubuffet’s palette narrowed onto a predominantly blue, red, and black scheme, and his subjects were typically rendered as you see below: built from flat segments of solid and striped irregular shapes.